Thursday, April 05, 2007

Coup de Torchon (1981)

[Requested by Jeff Duncanson.]

The sun-stroked rhythms of provincial African life inform this colonialized spin on Jim Thompson's small-town-underbelly saga Pop. 1280. The pace of life is languid and lackadaisical -- it's a land of heat and veiled threats but little action, which is why police chief Lucien Cordier (played to perfection by Phillipe Noiret) initially seems like the proper non-authority. He's corrupt and lazy, doing as little as he can while enduring abuse from pimps, fellow officers, his harridan wife and her layabout so-called brother. All Cordier wants is to be left to his own devices, but his genial ineffectuality leaves him a doormat attracting bullies and thugs wherever he goes. Behind the gee-shucks smile, though, is a building rage coupled with a fiercely planning mind, and when he finally decides to bring about his own solitude, the cold-eyed cruelty Cordier unleashes is staggering and surprising. As he dispenses with his enemies and openly dallies with a young woman symbolically named Rose (a delightfully saucy Isabelle Huppert), the film bleeds a sort of sick fascination -- the everyday abuse of Cordier's tormentors pales in comparison to his terrifying, carefully applied turn towards evil. It's like watching a chess match wherein Black, after allowing his opponent to get confident and push him around for half the match, suddenly mates in two. (The blackmail gambit Cordier foists upon a cocksure fellow cop, in particular, is ingenious.)

Meanwhile, as Cordier rampages, the colonial system quietly crumbles around him. French West Africa, as seen through Tavernier's pitiless prism, is a land of scavengers, opportunists and assholes. The system is rotten from within, which Tavernier makes explicit via a termite infestation that's causing the local church's crosses to fall. (Bertrand's most poisonous metaphor, though, comes in the form of a dysentery epidemic that is often spoken about but not seen; the intimation, of course, is that everyone's full of shit but society keeps it out of sight.) The film isn't perfect (in particular, I think the damaged spiritual overtones are harmfully clumsy and vague -- is Cordier equating himself to Jesus, the Devil or what?), but the potency of its bilious take on colonialism sticks in the guts. Moral rot and systemic rot are one and the same in Coup de Torchon, with the former fueling the acceleration of the latter. There are no innocents (as Cordier says, "We all contribute to each other's crimes"), only varying degress of corrupt. By film's end, even the cosmos deserts Cordier in the form of an eclipse. The sun shines on his black soul and the black soul of French West Africa no longer.

Grade: B


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